Photos: Making Backyard Grappa in Tuscany

The farmer and I walk down the dirt path in silence. The unseasonably warm October sun heats my shoulders and I can hear my sandals crunching against the gravel. Before we reach the shed he stops and turns to me.

“You know, this is illegal.”

I did, in fact know it was illegal. My latest Facebook status update reads, “I’m off to learn how to make grappa. From what I gather, it’s like a moonshine meth lab. One wrong move and the entire thing will explode. Exciting stuff!” When I wrote it, I was joking. Sort of.

Under a moonshine law, backyard operations like this one are against the law in Italy. The government regulates the potentially dangerous process of distillation (explosions, methanol blindness, etc.) banning all home-distilation. The truth is, many Italians still brew their own highly alcoholic “acqua.” It’s a part of their culture – a throwback to old times, intertwined with the annual grape harvest, the art of wine-making and rural living.

“So, you can take the photos, but please don’t put our information on the internet.” Check.

So, my readers, it’s time for you to put on your blindfolds. We’re going to get all “James Bond secret hideout-y” up in this blog. You’re about to witness, in photos: everything you ever wanted to know about making grappa – in an undisclosed location on an unnamed farm, somewhere in the remote countryside of southern Tuscany.

The Set-Up

The grappa factory – all the equipment necessary to distill moonshine in your own backyard.

Opening the pressurized metal cask

This is where the magic happens. The pomace – grape skins and stems left over from the week’s wine-making – is heated indirectly until steam builds up. The steam passes through a tube, condensing as it cools. The resulting clear liquid becomes grappa.

A burst of steam hits the air when the cask is opened. Inside, the remnants of grape skins and stems.


Indirect Heat

The metal cask containing the pomace rests in another metal pot of boiling water. Indirect heating, called a “bagnomaria” prevents the grape skins from burning and affecting the flavor of the final product. Here, water is being added to the pot to make the next batch of grappa.

Out with the old

The old pomace is scooped out of the metal cask.

In with the new

Orange crates filled with new grape skins are stacked against the wall. When the cloth covering them is lifted, a massive cloud of fruit flies blackens the air. I cover my nose and mouth until they settle. The new grape skins are bright purple. They were pressed at the farm within the past week to make red wine.

The new grape skins are scooped into the metal cask.

Breaking the Rules

There are three rules that make grappa “grappa.” 1. The grappa must be made in Italy. 2. It must be produced from pomace (all grape skins and leaves). 3. All fermentation and distillation has to occur with the pomace alone, no added water. The farmer doesn’t add water to the mix, but he does add  a few liters of old white wine, four years old to be exact. This is wine made at the farm that is no longer table-drinkable, but it’s still a far cry from vinegar. The wine will aid the distillation process by speeding up the steam. the farmer may be bending the rules, but then again, he’s already breaking the law…

One last look at the new pomace before it becomes grappa.

Light my Fire

The gas is lit beneath the metal casks. The water between the two containers begins to boil.

The Distillation

As the pressure and steam builds up in the metal cask, it is released through a thin metal tube, passing through a metal cooling barrel. The metal tube spirals down the sides of the container. As the steam passes through the cool water, it condenses into a clear, strong alcohol. The water in the cooling bath heats up quickly, so there’s a constant stream of cold water being pumped into the bottom, as the hot water exits the container from the top. This prevents overheating, explosions, etc.

The Drip

Slowly, the newly formed grappa will drip from the metal tube into a waiting glass jug. It passes through one final filter on the way, emerging crystal clear.

The Final Product

Each batch of grappa takes four hours. In the first few hours, the grappa contains less alcohol. Later in the process, the liquid is much stronger. The farmer combines the two for a balanced grappa with medium alcohol content (“medium” moonshine is still 80-90 proof). Normally, the grappa is aged 2-3 months before consumption. The farmer pours an inch of the clear stuff into a plastic cup and hands it to me.

“How old is this grappa?” I ask him.

“Three, four….hours,” he says, “we made this before lunch.”

I tentatively take a sip. It’s surprisingly sweet and fruity – the sweetness will fade with aging – smooth to the taste, but I can still feel the liquid’s burn as it slides down my throat. I love a good grappa, and this farmer clearly knows what he’s doing. The grappa process is simple and natural – but kids, don’t try this at home; making moonshine can get messy.

Posted on by Foodie International Posted in Italy

17 Responses to Photos: Making Backyard Grappa in Tuscany

  1. Barton O'Brien

    Very interesting article – thanks! In the beginning, you made a comment about methanol blindness, but you didn’t mention any safety precautions with this approach. Is this approach totally safe? It didn’t seem like much could go wrong as long as you followed your instructions.

    • Andy

      methanol can appear in the first five percent of the batch so if you toss that you are good to go. But realistically, there’s so little methanol in a process like this it’s not a necessary precaution.

  2. Lauren W.

    This combines many of my loves: science, using everything to make something new even the discarded stems and peels, a touch of the illegal, tradition, and of course the libation. Thanks for sharing!

  3. Charu

    Wine making is such a complex process, so thanks for sharing your insight–recently went to Napa where we learned a LOT.

  4. Tomer

    Methanol blindess by distilling wine is a prohabition myth spreaded so people wont make spirits at home. and as you see, it totaly worked!

    The methanol content in a wine is so low to begin with (slightly higher in fruit wines where pectic enzyme is used during the winemaking to get better juice yeild)
    You will die of alcohol poisoning well before going blind. :)

  5. Ed

    How can you tell if it does have methanol in it?

  6. Ben

    All pot still distillation will contain methanol. Cutting the first 5% ‘heads’ may get rid of more volatile compounds like ethyl acetate but methanol and ethanol cannot be separated in a pot still. Good distillers can do it with a column still. The saving grace for grappa is that grapes are naturally low in pectin- the breakdown of which cases methanol in fermented products. Be careful when distilling fermented fruits high in pectin.

    • JET

      What I usually do is two distillations. You take the raw grappa off the skins in the late fall right after they’re crushed; then in the the winter I’ll set my still up again and re-distill the raw grappa a 2nd time. It’s then that i save the first four “2.5%” head cuts in jars . . . and then determine from my distilling notes which ones for sure to discard. Anything that distills over below 80 degs C is discarded; it’s usually the just the first two; so yes Ben, that would be the first 5% of my yield. But sometimes whew! if the 3rd head cut smells bad? (like toluene, acetone, and/or xylene; all glue solvents) no way am I going to serve THAT to my friends!! so out it goes; quite possibly along with the fourth. That turns out to be the first 10% of my yield; which is plenty to dispose of to get past the methyl alcohol.

      These odors usually only occur if you’ve been storing the skins too long; like over a month or so.

      OH! Foodie I! :) I got a laugh out your episode (expressed above) dealing with the fruit flies. Tell your friend in Tuscany to buy some 5 or 6 gal HDPE (white #2) food grade buckets with snap on lids . . . if he uses a water&bag seal on top of the skins? viola! no more fruit flies. Except, well, there’s always a couple!! :)



    As the skins are required, to add a certain GRAPPA taste, what of the woodiness of the grape stalks?

    • JET

      Hi! By tradition, the stalks & seeds are part of it. Don’t forget: they’ve been in the ferment, too. And by function? There’s no way, by the time the grappa guy gets the pomace, to separate out a zillion little seeds & pcs of stalk from your starting raw mat’l . . .


  8. Eric Thomas

    I have just been given a 220litre drum 3/4 full of first crush red grapes, I would like to make grappa, I have use of a pot still and some local expertise to go with it, my question is…do I add water and sugar and if so, how much, and when?

    • Foodie International

      Hi Eric, I’m in no way an expert on distillation. I’ve observed farmers making not-so-legal grappa in rural Tuscany. I would consult a distillation specialist before attempting anything that could result in a fire, explosion or poisoning if not done correctly. Best of luck with the grappa!

      • JET

        Foodie Int’l:

        Hi from Jet in Northern CA. I had the pleasure of learning grappa making from a wonderful older guy who has been making stove-top grappa for 30 years. It turns out real well! :) I’ve adopted his process for my own use, and I make enough every season to keep myself & many, many Italian friends happy & smiling. I’ve made upwards to 40 liters at home some years! It’s a big process; but there’s not many people making grappa at home; so I’m proud to be able to say that “I made it”.

        I’ve learned & studied a lot about distillation & grappa production; and can surely share with you and your readers.

        Just looking at the pix you’ve posted? I’ve made a cpl observations.

        There shouldn’t be any “pressure” build up during distillation; it’s not like pressure cooking, or home canning. A grappa still is an “open”, un-pressurized system. It’s just a simmering pot full of skins, with a long copper tube attached to the top that the grappa drips out of. There’s no pressure.

        Explosions can only occur (extremely, extremely rarely) when open flame ignites ethanol vapors; that’s why I was taught to do it on an electric stove, and why I recommend folks maybe purchase a 1500w hot plate for doing larger qtys, say in your garage of something . . . and out of sight of the neighbors. :) Believe me, if one has the brains & ingenuity to get a grappa still up & running? generally there’s not any danger of fire or explosion.

        Also ask your Italian friend why he doesn’t seem to be using any copper, or copper tubing anywhere. It appears his system consists of all stainless steel; which is surely very hygienic; but copper really needs to be used somewhere in the hardware system to combine with, & thus eliminate the sulfides that exist in the skins (as a result of the wine-making).

        Also: no added wine, please . . . as the pix show our Italian friend doing. I’ll bet the only reason he’s doing this? is to extract the EtOH (ethanol) that may be left. But the danger here is the chance of also adding an amt of acetic acid; which distills over, and affects the taste of the final product. You want to minimize the chance for acetic acid, not add to it. Throw extra wine into a vinegar barrel!! IMHO. :)

        We can chit-chat about methanol in another post.

        – JET:)

    • JET

      Eric – how did this go for you? Were you successful?


  9. craig

    Hmmm I have 150 liters of crushed grapes fermenting right now….. ;)

    • JET

      HI – how’s it going? Did you get things distilled OK?

      Foodie In’tl – Thanks in advance for letting us chit-chat about grappa!!


  10. JET

    Hi Foodie – any recent discoveries re grappa?

    Jet :)

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